In the new anime movie Weathering With You, a teenager named Hina treks up 10 flights to a rooftop where a makeshift shrine sits in a rare beam of sunlight. Tokyo is rain-soaked, and as it continues to pour, she walks toward the shrine and, praying hard, steps through the shrine gate. The rain halts mid-air. The movie cuts to Hina falling through the sky like some celestial thing, witnessing supernatural weather patterns only she’s meant to see.
Hina has the power to stop the rain. She’s a “sunshine girl,” a mythic master of weather. Later, alongside an enterprising young man named Hodaka, she channels her abilities into a business, stopping the eternal rain and summoning the sun for customers’ weddings, festivals, or fireworks shows. It’s a godsend, in a way; Hina is responsible for supporting her younger brother without the help of her parents. “I’ve finally found my role in life,” she tells Hodaka as they watch fireworks from a dry spot of concrete.
Weathering With You, released this month by the creators of hit anime Your Name, is plainly about the imminent climate catastrophe, the creeping awareness that in a decade or so the earth’s increasing temperatures could bring with them rising seas, wildfires, extreme weather. The added water vapor caused by global warming, climate scientists have warned for decades, will coalesce as heavy rain not unlike the constant downpour in Weathering. Scientists describe this as an inevitability, which makes writer-director Makoto Shinkai’s movie, ultimately, a power fantasy—a fever dream that one person can forestall environmental crisis.
(Spoiler Alert: Plot points for Weathering With You follow.)
The sexy pitch for Weathering With You is “climate catastrophe romance.” Hodaka and Hina are both scrappy teenagers without support networks who reap success from their sunshine-bringing work partnership, which soon takes on a will-they-or-won’t-they tension. After an ecstatic night of luxury in a Tokyo hotel room—during which it seems like they might finally kiss—Hina reveals that, traditionally, the sunshine girl “gets sacrificed and disappears. Then the weather goes back to normal.” Disrobing, Hina exposes a shoulder with the texture of water. All of her sunshine prayer, she admits, has caused this. Then she’s gone and, predictably, it stops raining.
Critics are hailing Weathering With You as the perfect movie for 2020, a saccharine, candy pop love story that’s also an allegory for environmental collapse. The pundits are right here, but not just for that reason. The larger subterranean premise of Weathering With You is that the choices two human children make can influence the climate at large—that a young maiden’s prayer and love and empathy can impact its inevitable unraveling. After Hina disappears from that Tokyo hotel room, the temperature jumps to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The force of an individual has, in this perhaps irresponsible science-fiction reality, swept away destructive and unnatural weather patterns.
You can convince your brother to renounce beef, your mother to compost, your sister to take canvas bags to Whole Foods. You can give $50 in your father-in-law’s name to the Natural Resources Defense Council and donate your car to charity. If you’re in an urban environment, it’s likely that someone’s tried to convince you to do one—or all—of these things. Now more than ever, the burden seems to have fallen on individuals to decrease our global carbon footprint. Nobody sane would argue this is unproductive. If anything, individual awareness and advocacy will be what leads governments and corporations to take the necessary action against environmental disaster. It’s just that the one person, or 3 million people, who step up to take responsibility for the earth can’t turn into mythic maidens and stop the unceasing rain.
“The bigger issue is that focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions,” Penn State University professor Michael Mann wrote recently in Time. “We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care.”
One 2017 report claims that 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of the emissions produced since 1988. Out of the top 20 companies that have contributed most to climate change, 12 are state-owned. It is impossible to fathom a teenage girl sponging up any significant volume of spilled oil or capturing any carbon, although certainly there are hundreds of thousands who would try. Internationally, more than 4 million people—most notably school children—attended the September 2019 climate strikes.
Toward the end of Weathering With You, Hodaka reverses Hina’s sacrifice when, as one critic put it, he brings Hina back and “doomed Tokyo because of hormones” by retriggering the rainfall. The city is subsumed by flood, with homes and businesses bricked by feet of water. Checking the defunct Sunshine Girl inbox, Hodaka is drawn to the home of an old woman who, years ago, emailed in an attempt to engage Hina’s services. The high is 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Hodaka enters her apartment and she comments that she moved from her old home downtown. He learns it is now underwater. “I’m sorry,” he says.
The old woman does not accept his apology. She opens a plastic wrapper containing a snack. Two hundred years ago, she explains, Tokyo was a bay, and little by little, “human beings and weather changed it.”
“I think it’s just gone back to its original self,” she says.
Weathering With You is a fantasy, but it’s not escapist. It’s a modern masterpiece for reasons its creators may not have anticipated. In 13 or 50 years, when the impact of climate change will be more manifest, future generations might look back at it as a quaint time capsule, a reminder of a moment when one individual might find it appropriate to apologize for bringing the flood.
Updated 1-30-20, 10:45 pm EST: This post was updated to add a spoiler alert.